the cult classic 1999 pc title System Shock 2 is one of the “best games of all time,” a title given to video games far too often, however, many sweaty video game journalists and people old enough to play mature FPSes in the year 2000 agree with me on this one. System Shock 2 resonates throughout modern titles, bits and pieces of it appearing in games and media 23 years after its initial launch. why is this commercially unsuccessful FPS so prolific? is it truly deserving of its title?
the game is good, and yes, it certainly is.
System Shock 2 was a joint effort between Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studios (and when i say joint effort, i mean Irrational Games did most of the work, and LGS held the rights to the Shock series), and published by EA. it’s a sequel to (lets play: guess the title!) System Shock 1, and features a complete graphical overhaul, environments with multiple polygons, and physics, but the spirit of the original is still intact. SS2 is an immersive sim, designed to give the player multiple options to solve problems, some of which not intended by the developers.
wait, hold on, how does an immersive sim work? what are you talking about?
so imagine an immersive sim not as a game, but rather a virtual world with a set of rules and objects, each of these objects have certain properties, and these objects can be arranged to make a room or an overworld, or, in this case, a spaceship. these objects can be interacted with by the player, so the puzzles aren’t hard coded into the design, but rather are an inherent part of the world itself.
its incredibly hard to describe what an immersive sim is. it took me a while to wrap my head around it, but a quote from Warren Spector (the “creator” of the immersive sim and Ripley’s exhibit)
"I was watching testers play this area where your path is blocked by a portcullis, and you had to flip a lever to raise the portcullis and advance. The tester didn't have the telekinesis spell that you needed in order to flip the lever, and I thought he was doomed. But one of the members of his party was a talking mouse, and since the portcullis was a simulation, the mouse could actually wriggle through it and flip the lever. And I just fell on the floor. No one else in the world had ever done that! You weren't supposed to be able to do that! And I thought to myself, ‘That, that is what I'm doing for a living from now on. I'm going to make things like that happen.' That's the immersive sim right there – all because of an accident."
the easiest way to think of an immersive sim is as a game in which things behave like they would in the real world. the earliest immersive sims attempted to emulate the feeling that Dungeons and Dragons gave a player in a digital medium, and System Shock 2 executes this beautifully.
for instance, i broke this window to get into this room, which was a perfectly valid solution to the problem, however, the more astute gamer would have noticed the unlocked door next to the window. a simpler solution, that i, for some reason, refused to notice. i dont use that door out of spite for the rest of my playthrough.
oh yeah, sorry. System Shock 2 starts out with a training stage, as all janky 90s fpses do. every one of the mechanics are on full display. You have latent psychic powers; a potential cyber affinity that grants you the ability to hack into doors, vending machines, etc; tools to research alien lifeforms; a variety of weapons that you’re capable of equipping, but in many cases, these options are not available until much later in the game. you see, System Shock 2 forces you to choose one of three branches of the space military to enlist in: Navy, Marines, or OSI. each of these branches give you different stat modifiers that you’re stuck with for the rest of the game. do you want to hack your way through (navy), fight your way through (marines), or be a fucking wizard (OSI, dont do this for your first playthrough).
if you’ve noticed already, the game hasn’t put a lot of focus on the shooting, and only will put a focus on it if you want to. the game wants to be played however you wish to play it, and encourages multiple tactics and strategy instead of pure skill. while one would think this would make the game more frustrating, it somehow adds to the immersion of floating through space, with no one to call or ask for help. you’re incredibly alone in SS2, despite the scattered audio logs from the decimated crew, and the transmissions from a surviving crew member calling themselves Polito. you’re the only person you can ask for help, and you have a limited skillset.
SPOILER WARNING FROM HERE
System Shock 2 is a masterclass in horror. You’re an unnamed final surviving crew member (nicknamed “Goggles” by the fans) on the Von Braun, a titan of a ship, which has been boarded by an alien species calling themselves “the many.” it, in the form of small annelid creatures, latch onto whatever living being they can, and slowly take over their central nervous system.
and that’s all you know for like, the first 3 hours of the game-If you made sure to pay attention to your research stat, or upgrade it using some of the “cyber-modules” (look i dont like the word cyber either, it was 1999, cut the game some slack) gifted to you from Polito or from looting a few corpses. If you didn't know that research was going to be part of the game, and that it was incredibly useful, you only get polito’s transmissions and the audio logs from crew members as upset and confused as goggles in desks and crates throughout the ship.
this method of storytelling seems oddly familiar to another game,,, developed by the same people,,,
bioshock and system shock are basically the same game (this is almost an aside, but it introduces Ken Lavine, so its important i guess)
Bioshock, the 2007 fps developed by 2k studios, is considered a spiritual successor to the System Shock series. the head writer on the game, Ken Lavine, worked at Irrational Games before going to 2k, as well as a variety of other Bioshock team members. If you play SS2 right before playing Bioshock, it's easy to see some similarities. Polito is just Atlas, the hybrids are just drugged up civilians, and the Von Braun is essentially Rapture; just drop the spaceship in the ocean.
Bioshock is essentially System Shock 2 if it took place in the 60s underwater and was just, better at system shock-ing (a claim im going to back up later, i know this is like, one of the best games of all time, but it has some GLARING flaws). its a modern fps with “rpg elements” instead of the immersive sim it draws upon WITHOUT a heapin’ helpin’ of 90s Jank™. if you have a hard time playing through older games with major issues, i highly recommend playing Bioshock first, and if you really, truly love Bioshock, play some of the OG Shock series. i cant offer that same recommendation to Bioshock Infinite, however, because it's just kinda boring (sorry ghost story games, i just dont like it as much as the other games in the series, infinite is clearly the weakest link)
getting back on track
System Shock 2 is somewhat linear, in that different areas of the ship are opened over time after you find access cards that grant you the ability to open bulkheads (which is a fun way to allow the game to load in without killing immersion) and doors. the access cards for the next area are always in the area you’ve just entered, and this pattern repeats until the middle of the game, where SS2 begins to hit its peak of enjoyment.
spoiler-ish, cw for suicide
you get an email from polito, asking you to take the elevator (that you just put back online) to the highest area of the ship - command. she wants you to meet her there, and its exciting! this is going to be your first encounter with a human npc! you make your way up an elevator, and another elevator for tension, you walk to a bulkhead, and you’re met with a long and narrow hallway, with the corpse of Polito slouched over the gun she used to shoot herself. The walls tear apart, and you’re face-to-face with SHODAN, the rogue AI from the first System Shock, while Polito sits in her chair, motionless.
SHODAN reveals that she had been using Polito’s voice and face to communicate with us, because if we knew that we were talking to a rogue AI from the very beginning, the player probably wouldn’t want to work with her. she attempts to use the sunk cost fallacy to persuade goggles, and then threatens to kill them if they dont work with her (the player, however, is completely fine with this exchange. “As long as i get to keep having fun!” they say, and then they have to get through the Rickenbacker, and they say, “this wasnt the deal, this isnt fun”).
the spoiler is over and the content warning is over
even though the presentation during this section is immaculate, many consider this to be where the game starts to turn for the worst. The first zone, MedSci, is one of the best parts of the game, because they probably spent the most time on it. System Shock 2 was rushed towards the end of development, and this becomes more and more apparent as you play through it, like a receipt printer running out of ink. one of the last zones in the game is a long corridor made of meat, which is supposed to be the Many’s hive-mind, and while certain concepts executed during this area sound great on paper, a lot of them just, dont execute well at all.
right before goggles faces off against the big boss, there are several powerful enemies sitting in this narrow corridor, so its impossible to dodge them unless you guide them out to a large opening in front. even after you’ve killed all of them and they wont fuck your shit while you aren’t looking, there are still 2 fucking floating nervous systems that shoot psychic bullets at you. they’re such a pain to get around, some walkthroughs encourage that you abuse the invisibility psi in order to get around them. I FEEL LIKE THIS IS THE ONLY FUCKING ESSENTIAL USE OF PSI IN THE ENTIRE GODDAMN GAME. THIS FEELS LIKE THE ONE POINT WHERE DOING ANYTHING OTHER THAN SNEAKING AROUND EVERYTHING IN THIS BUSTED-ASS CORRIDOR LEADS TO AN ALMOST INSTANT DEATH. I HAD TO FIND AN UPGRADE STATION AND HACK IN A PSI AMP IN ORDER TO PROGRESS BECAUSE I WAS TRYING TO HAVE A NO-PSI RUN. EVERY TIME I TRIED TO PICK OFF THE GUARDS, I WOULD RUN OUT OF BULLETS BECAUSE OF THEIR LUDICROUSLY HIGH HP POOLS, AND THEN THE BRAIN HYBRIDS WOULD RESPAWN BECAUSE THEY’RE JUST PSYCHIC PROJECTIONS. AWESOME.
entertainment as a medium is always bound by deadlines, and while this is the byproduct of commercializing art, it usually leads to a less refined product at the end of the development period. games are passion projects at their best, and as such, its important to give creators enough time to finish their masterpiece. ok, if i haven't convinced you, System Shock’s horrible late development period will certainly help you see where im coming from.
spoilers for the ending
the end of the game has you face off against a near-omnipotent SHODAN, who has gotten her hands on the FTL drive, rewriting reality as she sees fit. this is two zones after the body of the many, which i have expressed my distaste for, and one zone after a System Shock 1 reference, which many interpret as a lazy attempt to recycle level design (but i find pretty neat. certain elements do feel rushed, but Ken Lavine is a System Shock giga-fan, so it makes sense he would reference the sequel in such a hamfisted way). the fight itself is incredibly easy, as many fps bosses are in this game, save for the (infamous) cutscene that plays immediately after you deal the killing blow to SHODAN: your low-poly player stands in front of a display that SHODAN is using to communicate with you, as SHODAN begs that you dont kill her, that she would offer you wealth and power, and you reply with a trite “nah.” before blowing a hole in her CPU.
Ken Lavine was INCREDIBLY frustrated with this ending. he wrote an entirely different ending, designed to build tension instead of atomizing it. in Ken Lavine’s original script, you’d beat her, she would catch you off guard and attempt to kill you in the ending cutscene, Lavine gives it this Saw-like feeling in any interviews he does about the game. the big deal about this potential ending is that he sent it into the animators, and got the cutscene just a few months before release. the ending that Lavine had written had not been made for some reason or another, and he had no time to consult anyone about it, he just had to put it in the game to get it ready for release.
System Shock 2 is expected to have errors like this, because the game was made in just 11 months by mostly newcomers in a studio with 900 square feet of office space. it's a marvel it was even GREENLIT let alone actually released.
this concludes part 1 of the System Shock 2 essay. keep an eye out for part 2, and a video essay if i get more comfortable with my voice.
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